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After years on the fence about Facebook, I realized last week that Facebook is whatever you make it, and I posted two questions that happened to be foremost in my mind that day.

One was about musical notation and the other about the ‘maggot scene’ from “Mutiny on the Bounty.” 

From the flurry of comments, I learned many things about both, including these:

“Toasted they taste like pine nuts (I accidentally discovered once when I didn’t sift flour…)” (Thank you for that one, Mimi)

A recipe for Maggot Crisps, written out in full by Kristine (thank you Kristine)

The lyrics to a 70’s band ‘worm song’ (many thanks, Clem)

Also how singers like to see rhythms notated — at least in one specific situation — which is the subject of this blog.

The specific situation is a passage from “Songs of the Pyre,”  a 5-movement dramatic song-cycle for soprano, harp, piano and cello.

I premiered the song-cycle in NYC back in the ’80’s and it’s been on my “Prepare for Publication” shelf ever since — because given the choice between “Prepare Finished Piece for Publication” or “Write New Exciting Piece,” guess which I choose?

This year I’ve committed to releasing the works on that shelf, and I’ve hired composer-and-copyist Noah Brenner to help. So Noah is taking old hand-written versions, digitizing them and standardizing layouts and notation.

But standards aren’t always clear, and sometimes what makes sense to composers doesn’t read sensibly to performers. Facebook gave us the chance to provide two examples and let performers weigh in.

Noah made an A-B comparison chart and I  asked singers to weigh in,  choose between two ways of notating the same line – and to tell me which they preferred and why.









And the comments were all illuminating.  The kind of feedback you could normally only get in a classroom.

And the last one, especially, made me realize that this was an excellent tool.

So, I take back all that stuff I said about Facebook (don’t bother looking for it – I mostly said it to my cat).

If you’re already my friend on Facebook and you’re thinking, “But, hey, I don’t remember reading anything about maggots OR music notation!” it’s probably because you are only my friend, but you do not officially “like” me.

I do most of my posting on my “official” fan page, so please join the conversation here – and if you have a recipe for maggot mousse, I’m all eyes.


So last Sunday…

… after a ridiculously early Sunday morning flight, jazz harpist Susan Ottzen picked me up at the Atlanta airport and brought me to the Atlanta Harp Center, where I immediately took a nap on the floor of the Harp Storage Room (it was like bedding down in a forest of towering harps – really).

Then I spent a rollicking afternoon with 13 intrepid harp players, singing and playing the Blues.

This was a workshop that mixed four things: passion, Blues, adult beginners and professional musicians. And here’s what I love about that:

As adult beginners, the adult part of us has a choice:

We can use our adult mind to strategize a path for the beginner … or we can revert to being a tantrum-throwing juvenile. Both are fun. But if you go for the first, as a musician, you can use your strategic adult mind to simplify music so that you can enjoy playing with others even if they’re “way beyond you.”

Unlike running with people beyond your ability. Trust me, I know.

If you’re a slow runner, like me, you can’t really run “with” a fast runner and both of you be challenged,  engaged and comfortable. Even if you start off at the same time, they’ll be ahead of you within a few steps (did I mention my husband is a marathon trainer?).

But music moves at the same rate no matter who’s playing.

So if you’re a beginner who knows the secrets of simplifying, then you can decide to play fewer notes and still play music together with people of far greater technical ability. Sure, they may be playing 10 times more notes than you (or 20 or 30 times) — but you’re still playing the music together.  The strategy comes in knowing which ones to leave out.

And, by the way, I learned this many times in my life, once from the great bass-player, Rufus Reid.

So I was really excited to have players with a huge range of skills – from Susan Ottzen, who teaches jazz harp – to a student who’d only just had her first 3 harp lessons. So how did this all happen?

I’m working on two education-type projects right now:
One’s called “Blues by the Dozen” and the other is called “Strings of Passion:”

The Blues project is about creating simple, immediately playable structures and the Passion project is about revealing underlying principles.

So one is about learning through doing, and the other is about deconstructing an idea — the idea of passion in performance — so we can find it, practice it and explore it everywhere in our lives.

In “Strings of Passion,” the point is to create an “Enhancement Loop” (I just made that up, so don’t bother Googling it),  where exploring the expression of passion in life gives us insight and connection to performing with passion as performing artists – and exploring passion in performing arts enhances how we live with passion.

In the Blues project, the point is to just get your fingers on the notes, sing, play and have a rollicking good time.  You learn a ‘technique’ and immediately put it into practice.

‘Til now I’ve always thought of “technique” workshops and “concept” workshops as – well, basically as opposites — even though I use a lot of physicalizing in concept workshops.

I wanted to see what would happen if I put these two ideas together in a workshop: I wanted to combine a simple playable structure with concepts of passion and performance — within a fairly short amount of time.

And, judging by the experience of 12 harpists belting out the Blues on harp and voice, the experiment was a success!   

What I discovered was that by describing principles of impassioned performance before we even started learning notes, and by telling just a few stories to put the principles into context, the level of performance in people’s playing was so much freer right off the bat, in terms of physical investment and energy. (And remember, this was a mixed group of professionals and adult-beginners – each of whom have different issues when it comes to freely expressing themselves through music).

So I’m excited to continue exploring this in future workshops and I’ll keep you posted!

It turns out I’ll be doing a lot of this in March at the “Beginning in the Middle” retreat near Richmond, VA.  This is an entire learning retreat just for adult beginners on harp.

I’ve heard about this festival for years, loved the idea and always wanted to give my workshops at it — and 2012 is the first time it’s worked out with my schedule.  So if you know an adult-beginner harpist or a harpist wannabe, tell them about “Beginning in the Middle” – or, heck! Buy them a registration for Christmas!

Me, I’m off to begin in the middle of dinner …

It was a composer’s Cinderella story:  a CD/DVD project with symphony orchestra and all my original music.  7 cameras, a director, designers, producer, Union negotiations, makeup artists … and did I mention the full symphony orchestra?

The video would go beyond simple documentation to truly bringing an audience into my world, my experience as an orchestra composer and soloist. I didn’t know at the time, but it would eventually be shown on PBS stations all over the US, and the CD would get a GRAMMY® Nomination.  I’d sit in the dark, waiting to see if my name was called, terrified about tripping on my way to the podium.  Then keenly disappointed that I didn’t have that chance.  A huge, rich, vibrant slice of life most composers only dream of.

And all of it was made possible by one man, a philanthropist – and now my friend — Peter Wege.  He’d walked up to me after my first concert with his regional orchestra, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and he said, “What I saw out there on stage, I want the whole world to see.”

Peter Wege and Deborah Henson-Conant

Peter and me

And he meant it.

When he invited me to submit a proposal for a project, I knew this was the chance of a lifetime.  My husband, producer Jonathan Wyner, encouraged me to propose a project that was not just about my music, but about me as a performer, something that could bring the audience into the very middle of my work for electric harp and symphony orchestra.  That meant making a DVD as well as a CD.

Once the project was approved, I spent over a year simply preparing the music, rehearsing and practicing.  And this was after 10 years I’d spent writing, performing and editing the pieces.  Meanwhile, Jonathan, as the producer, was spending all his time putting together the greatest team he could find, watching video after video to find the best lighting designer, the best director, editor, production company and graphic designer he could.  We’d never done a project like this, so were assembling a team from scratch, but he already had ideas of some of the ‘dream people’ he wanted to work with, like multi-Grammy winning audio engineer Tom Bates.

So while Jonathan’s challenge was to assemble the team, my biggest artistic challenge was that I was the composer, the orchestrator and the soloist.  I had a year of work to do as composer and orchestrator – but my performance was what the audience would actually see.  The 3 days of taping (one of which was my birthday) were high stakes: each minute on stage cost over $1000. The key to my being free and focused as a performer in those high-pressure moments —  as well as the key to the crew’s being able to capture it — was to be completely prepared, and for everyone on the team to know the material.

I knew that the best way to do that was to practice the project in miniature as much as we could before the official shooting.  We needed to make what my architect friend Fred calls a “Maquette” – a mockup .

So Jonathan and I created two musical “Maquettes,”  Instead of a 70-piece orchestra, we used a 9-piece ensemble that represented the orchestra.  Instead of a 2,000 seat hall, we used two small local theaters  Instead of a ballet company, my dancer-friend Karen Montanaro created on-the-spot choreography and two volunteers held silk streamers; instead of 7 cameras and a huge editing truck, filmmaker Ian Brownell taped with 3 cameras and edited it himself … and so on.

It meant I had to write the music twice in many cases: once for chamber ensemble, and then for full symphony.  But that was the only way we could test the whole project and see how it would work on stage. It would also create the foundation for chamber music repertoire with harp – another dream of mine – but that’s another story.  We scheduled 2 Maquette performances, with a few months between them, for me to edit or create new material.

So these two Maquettes became part of the scaffolding of the final orchestral project. They allowed us to practice the music and the moves, and the edited videos became reference clips to help the director and lighting designer to envision the final project, since they came in fairly late in the game.

But the Maquettes themselves were real performances, and these ‘miniature’ chamber music versions were as fun and challenging to play as the full-orchestra versions.   And since we had a limit on how much orchestral music we could include in the final release, they also include some music that never made it into the final project.

Now that the final project has been out for a few years, I lan to release the Maquette versions on YouTube as part of my 2011-2011 “Re-DHC” project. In part I want to release them because I love them for what they are – and in part I want people to have the opportunity to compare the two versions, so that students of orchestration can see examples of the same piece in ensemble form and full symphonic form, and so that other performers interesting in learning and programming these pieces, can see how they work in the more economical chamber music versions.

These releases are part of my “Re-DHC” blog project, a year of weekly releases of projects that are sitting on my shelves … some that are “done” and were simply never released, and some that will never be ‘done’ and that I want to share in their ‘final’ sketch-form.

(As soon as I get the first ones up I’ll link them to this blog)


When I asked our host of last Tuesday’s Workshop, Betsy Chapman, what to expect in Boyertown, PA – and a little bit about Marianne, the owner of the beautiful Inn we’d be staying in, Betsy sent me this email. While I was there, I took these photos.

Marianne Deery is the Mayor of Boyertown, the town I live in.

Here in Boyertown we have Bear Fever – our mascot, the Boyertown Bear can be found all around town in various guises – a Doctor Bear in front of the medical center, a laywer Bear in front of Borough Hall, a dentist bear – you get the idea.  These Bears were all created by a coalition of businesses, students, and townspeople to bring collaborative public art to our town.

Boyertown is “A Special Kind of Place” – a town of 4,000 residents that boasts its own Farmer’s Market, has a Museum of Historic Vehicles that is recognized for it’s excellent collection by the Smithsonian, a fabulous 1912 restored theater for movies and live performances, Studio B, a non-profit art gallery, and a main street of locally owned businesses that make it hard to want to shop anywhere else!

Tattoo Parlor Bear

We have an important place in the history of theater as well – in 1908 a fire in the Rhoades Opera House killed 171 people, and wiped out whole families.  That fire caused many of the fire-safety laws to be written that are still in effect.

Note that all doors in theater open out, remain unlocked during performances, and have panic bars.  Many exits are required, not just one door.  Curtains must be fire-resistent.  Exit signs are clearly marked and lighted.  Fire extinguishers are in prominent places, etc.,etc., etc.  All thanks to a fire in our little town.

As for Mayor Marianne?  Besides being renowned for her baking, it is an open secret that her favorite duties as mayor are tapping the first keg of beer at our annual Oktoberfest, and performing wedding ceremonies.  Not necessarily in that order!

The Bear in the Inn

So … you like bears?  Get thee to Boyertown!

“Baroque Flamenco” is one of my most fiery & dramatic pieces that’s the dramatic finale of PBS music special “Invention & Alchemy” and the 3rd movement of my concerto “Soñando en Español.” (Read about the piece in this blog).  Now the piece is in the hands of many other harpists …

(Sign up for the next hands-on workshop)

In 2008 I arranged “Baroque Flamenco” for other harpists to play, and instead of just making a single arrangement, I created 3 arrangments: one for beginners, one for intermediate players, and the concert version I play, myself, for advanced players.  All the versions are playable on concert harp, and the beginning & intermediate versions are also playable on the lever harp (also called “Folk Harp” or “Celtic Harp.”  You can see both concerts harps and lever harps – the blue one, and the one I’m playing – in the photo below)

Workshop with DHC

Hands-On Workshop with DHC

So now harpists all over the world are playing this piece.  But to really play the piece – to bring it aliveyou need to not just play the notes, but also play the “character” of the piece — and that’s the kind of thing you can’t pass on via written notes.  

So I created a hands-on workshop specifically for learning how to express the character of the piece  — which is both the simplest, and the hardest part of the music.

To work on that, we use a simplified version of the piece, so that players on all levels, from beginning to advance, can work together at the same time. Interestingly, it’s often the less advanced players who have an easier time connecting with the ‘character’ of the piece, so working together in a multi-level environment is useful to everyone.

For that same reason, I invite any advanced players  to present a brief section of the piece during short “Master Class” interludes, so that the entire class can learn from watching these short one-on-one sessions (which are also a nice break from the playing … well, for everyone except the ones presenting!).

By  the end of the evening, everyone knows how to ‘get this piece across’ to an audience, regardless of their skill level, and they can then take that understanding and apply it to whatever level of the piece they’re working on. They also get my tips on practice techniques for Baroque Flamenco and ideas for developing their own unique performances of the piece.

I love sharing this in person because as a composer I have a limited language through just written notes – but when I can be in the same room with you, and show you exactly what I mean, musically, you’re getting all the music, not just the notes.  You get to literally look over my shoulder.  You get to experience the passion of the piece – you get the living music and then you become part of the life of that piece.

THE NEXT HANDS-ON “BAROQUE FLAMENCO” WORKSHOP:  is Fri. Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, CO.   Get more info or sign up here.

I had a radio interview yesterday morning on WPAZ, Pennsylvania’s  tiniest radio station (“with the biggest heart!”). The station had been struck by lightning the night before so they had to create an alternate tech set-up for my phone interview (see  below).  You can listen to that interview here:


I love the mic placement  at the speakerphone, and especially love that even though I wasn’t there … they still provided morning coffee.

Hey, it ain’t called “The Morning Show” for nothin’!

Radio host Betsy Chapman will also be hosting my “Fireworks for the Creative Spirit” workshop on Tue. Sept. 27 at the Tri-Country Performing Arts Center.  There are a couple of spots left as of this writing.  Here’s where you can get more info about the workshop is and how to register.

DHC & Betsy Chapman on live radio

It's nice to know that even if you phone it in, you still get coffee

RELATED POST:  Betsy sent me questions ahead-of-time (most of which she didn’t ask in the interview) but I experimented with writing out the answers in advance.  You can see the first question “Why the Harp?” here.

Line drawing of DHC playing harp (artist name: "Friday")

Line drawing of DHC by audience/artist "Friday"

I got a set of questions from Betsy Chapman, who hosts “The Morning Show” on WPAZ, a tiny station (“with a big heart!”) in Pennsylvania. WPAZ is co-sponsoring my “Fireworks for the Creative Spirit” next week, so Betsy interviewed me on air. But first she sent her questions, starting with the question I most dread and am most often asked.  So I started writing to find out what my  answer would be this time:

Q: So … why the HARP?

A: This is a question I ask myself over and over.  Did I play the harp as avoidance for writing musical theater, which is my first love?  Because it was an incredible physical challenge, a way I could be both an athlete and a musician at the same time?  Is it because it was an underdog instrument?  Is it because it was so identified with women, and so marginalized in the music world, that I felt like I wanted to liberate it in some way?

If someone had told me it is THE traditional storytelling instrument through history, that might have made me choose it.  But I did NOT know that.

If someone had told me it’s the missing link between the piano and the guitar, with all the double-handed dexterity of the piano but the ability to get right in on the strings and bend them and snap them like a guitar – that might have done it.  But I didn’t know that either.

So I honestly don’t know why I STARTED.  But I kept going for many reasons.  First, the challenge.  Practicing the harp completely enveloped my mind.  The dexterity between hands and feet, it calmed my mind and focused me in a way that nothing else did.  I think that my brain and my body needed something to connect them in that way: something complex and intricate, that required huge physical coordination and physical strength.  I found that very satisfying.

I also loved the excuse to get dressed up in long gowns,  high-heels, rhinestones and red-red lipstick, and I loved that I could pay my way through school by playing in dining rooms — PLUS I got free food.

When I started focusing on jazz, then again was the physical challenge I loved, and the understanding that by practicing a structure, I could eventually have huge musical freedom.

Then, later on, I fell in love with the international community of harp builders and players.  Which is good because a few years after that, I developed this idee fixe: the idea that it must be possible to strap on the harp, play it like an electric guitar.  And that was something I couldn’t make happen on my own.


Alewife Station - Bikes Down - Trying the Harp

Alewife Station - Bikes Down - Play a Scale

This morning I jumped out of bed and rolled my harp down to the Alewife subway station to serenade the morning commuters and pass out flyers for my show this coming weekend.

Lately, I’ve been busking in Harvard Square, but since my goal is to promote my May 7th show in Arlington – and since most people in Cambridge think that Arlington is a foreign country and not just one town over — I decided I’d  get my message to people who at least  know where Arlington IS – and the Alewife T Station is right on the cusp of Arlington and Cambridge.

I had to roll my gear down the bike path for a ways and I almost stopped right on the path near Magnolia field – the morning was so glorious – but my goal was the cool carved wooden benches outside the subway station, so I kept going, and I set up near the benches and started playing.

My premise with this street performing is to have one-on-one contact with people, not to get big crowds.  That means I  stop playing and interact with people whenever I want, and don’t worry about ‘missing’ a crowd or a potential audience member – or anything.  Just get to enjoy whoever I’m engaged with at that moment.

A lot of people simply want to avoid me, some eye my setup but completely miss any eye-contact with me, some smile and say “Good morning,” some say “Thank you” when I hand them the “World’s Smallest Posters” for my upcoming show, some say, “Hey! I heard you on the radio!” or “Wait a minute! Didn’t I see you on TV?” or ” I LOVE your shows!”   And a few stop and clearly want to engage.

This morning it was two girls who rode up on bikes with their mother.  The kids were not only fascinated with the harp, but the older one knew that the colors of the strings were significant, played a scale with no coaching, and had … what can I call it … “Good hand position!”  Kind of like … well, kind of like she was born to play the harp.  She then showed her little sister how to play a scale as her mom took this picture.

For me – a great way to start the day.

My Mother’s Day Eve show in Arlington is this Saturday, May 7th at 8pm at the Regent Theatre in Arlington Center. For more show info, click on the image at left.

HEY BOSTON FANS!!!! We have a handful of tickets to my show THIS Saturday, May 7 – 8pm at The Regent in Arlington. If you can definitely attend, please email your name and phone number to us at and use the subject header “REGENT TICKET GIVE-AWAY”.

On Thursday at noon we will pick the winners at random and contact them via email. Once all the winners are confirmed, we will announce them on Deborah’s Facebook Fan Page.

For more info on the show, click the image above.  See you there!

Bea, Deborah, Catharine, Cosita & the gang….

Using the clock to force ideas out of hiding

A blog about artistic process – creating “Electra’s Lyre” for May 7 Mother’s Day Eve performance at Regent Theatre (Boston-Area).

Earlier this week at the “Rethink Music” conference in Boston, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and friends created a 6-song album from start to finish – including writing the songs – in 12 hours.  The project was called 8in8 since the original plan was to create 8 songs in 8 hours.

The result was an album of roughly mixed songs which were inspired by sometimes haiku-like Twitter responses to tweeted questions by Neil Gaiman. It was rough, but it was a “thing” – meaning, by the end of the project something existed that hadn’t existed before, and it’s likely that at least one of the songs invented during the night will go on to have a longer life in another album or project.

"Honey, I Shrunk the Harp" - quickly created in November 2010

This is a form of creativity I call “CAPTURE” — versus “CRAFTING.”  It uses time constraints to flush the muse out of hiding instead of painstakingly courting her. I think of it as the difference between a hunter-type artistic model and a builder-type model.  Ultimately I think the two can work together, but that means accepting the rough gem for awhile.

This idea of forcing oneself into an artistic corner in order to capture art is something I’ve always been interested in, and experiment with a lot, especially in my last two mini-one-woman-show projects.  My own process is to start with a title, publicize the show and then write and rehearse the piece in about 3 weeks.  The first was called “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” which I performed in November, and the 2nd is called “Electra’s Lyre” which I’ll perform this Saturday at the Regent Theater in Arlington.

This way of working creates a special relationship with the audience, since they become part of the birthing of a piece. When I present a new work like this, I like to keep it to about 15 or 20 minutes, and present it in the context of a full show, so that the audience gets to really see the difference between new, rough, works — and polished pieces I’ve been performing for years.  That experience is important – it’s part of the value of live performance – that rawness and insight into the process.

For me, the artist, there are other advantages.  The format forces me to go with my first impulse, which is often the strongest. It forces me to stretch out of my comfort zone as a performer — and maybe most importantly for me personally – it forces me to reach out to other artists for coaching and collaboration.   In “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” in which I literally shrunk the harp on stage during the show, I got huge help from mime-dancer Karen Montanaro,  physical comedian Alex Feldman and composer-colleague Steve Murray.  For “Electra’s Lyre” I’ve been working with Alex Feldman again, and with dramaturg Mary-Ann Greanier.  And I meet monthly for critique sessions with the ‘Advanced Writer’s Lab” of the “New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative” (NOMTI).

My general process is this:

•    Title: I come up with a title that I think is funny or intriguing
•    Research: I start working that title – either researching it on the web or just playing with the ideas
•    Costume: I go to my local costume shop and get something, anything, to help me create the character
•    Script format: I FORCE myself to make my amorphous idea into a document that looks like a script – meaning it’s in script format, so even if you didn’t read the content, it would appear to be a script, with dialog, stage directions, songs – all in standard formats.  This idea of making it ‘look’ like a script I learned from the book “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days.”
•    Get help: I FORCE myself to give that script to someone who will be coaching me and let them read it, even though I’m cringing the whole time.
•    Get more help: I take the script to the Advanced Writer’s Lab at NOMTI, and, as embarrassed as I am, I read it and/or act it out for them.  They follow with a critique session which is always illuminating and often leads to big changes in the script or the idea as a whole
•    Get even more help: This time I’m even in a more serious collaborative relationship, since I’m working on the show with dramaturg Mary-Ann Greanier, so we’re in contact daily, as she reads each draft, comments, questions and suggests ideas.
•    Write blurbs & publicize: Meanwhile, I publicize the show, write press releases, create posters and postings about the show — and creating those “blurbs” often helps me focus what the show is truly about
•    Make sets: I FORCE myself into my studio to build some kind of set that will bring the show alive for me
•    Get Direction: I beg my director-friends to spend time with me working through the show – even if it’s just a half-hour –  either in person or on the phone
•    Rehearse: I rehearse it in the theater (and videotape it), thanks to the kindness of the Regent Theatre in letting me rehearse the week before the show
•    Chronicle: I videotape and review as much of my work as possible, from the first ideas to the show itself
•    Ask people I love and trust to run tech: Both in “Honey I Shrunk the Harp” and “Electra’s Lyre” my step-son and husband are involved in running tech.  Having them involved, knowing they’re ‘watching my back’ lets me relax that part of my brain on stage.
•    Kick myself:  There’s always a point where I think, “What was I THINKING???  How did I get myself into this??? I’m going to TOTALLY HUMILIATE myself this time for sure.”
•    Walk onto stage: I take a deep breath, go on stage and perform it

In the end, I have a mini-one-woman-musical.  It’s a new piece of work, which I’ve performed and videotaped and will then take to a director.  Rough? Yes.  A real, new, never-before-existed thing?  Yes.

And what amazes me most about the process is that in each case I started with a fairly arbitrary title – yet as I research and develop the piece over this short period of time, there comes a moment when I realize the subject has a profound meaning for me. I’ve built a trap to capture the art – but the art captures and releases something in me.  

Electra’s Lyre will be featured on my Mother’s Day Eve show at the Regent Theatre in Arlington.  More information & tickets here.

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